Thursday, 31 January 2013

Dreamtime

Time Jumper

Today is the last day of school holidays, which immediately implies on some historical event that is going to take place tomorrow. Historical or not, that’s not my topic for this post; I actually wanted to talk about the school holidays themselves.
To my great surprise, I greatly enjoyed them! I enjoyed spending time at home, I enjoyed spending time with my wife and son, I enjoyed us going together to Sydney and Canberra, and I enjoyed taking time off work to look after my son and go do stuff together. From time to time, doing stuff together even felt better than not going to work. And you know what? This arrangement I had with the wife, where we alternate daily between going to work and looking after the son? I can get used to that!
The result? For the first time in decades I feel that bitter taste that comes with going back to school.
There was more to these school holidays. For the first time in years I got to enjoy consistently longer night time sleeps. After years of sleeping around six hour a night, I got almost a month of seven to eight hours of sleep. It made me notice something weird.
I do not feel particularly more energetic with this extra sleep that I was getting. However, I noticed that I feel I’m dreaming more. To be more accurate, I notice that I remember dreaming and remember the contents of my dreams much better. In other words, sleeping longer makes for much interesting, dare I say rewarding, sleeps. My dreams are cool, man.
So: Here’s looking for the next school break!


Image by h.koppdelaney, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

I Am Commander Shepard


Don’t ask me what led to this question being raised – I can’t remember – but at the end of a conversation taking place the other week the wife asked me if I would have liked to be Commander Shepard. As in, for real.
I have invested the better part of the other night explaining why I regard Shepard’s story as highly as I do. That story is told through the Mass Effect trilogy of games (accompanied by books, comics and apps), and as regular readers of this blog might have noticed it had its impact on me. The question is, therefore, a very valid one; and as such I have to say that at the most basic of levels my answer is a “hell, ya” call to arms. At the more interesting level, the serious one, the question can be expanded to contain any literature hero one might have encountered (potentially including non-fictional ones). Given that at the moment Shepard is undoubtedly the most dominant hero character I can think of, I will try and answer my wife’s original question.

When I do think about it, as opposed to giving out my instinctive shot from the hip, my answer would be “no”. I mean, just look at the life of this Commander Shepard if you will:
  • Shepard did not have the happiest of childhoods. When first creating the character, one has to choose from varying degrees of potentially traumatic childhoods.
  • Shepard is an institutionalized soldier who has been through the most grueling of training (N7; nothing tops that!).
  • Shepard had a very tragic event in the recent past, just before the first game starts. Again, upon character creation you need to choose from events such as “sole survivor”. Not nice.
  • Before the age of thirty, Shepard becomes totally dedicated to a single cause. There is no way around it, really; here’s someone without much spare time for playing Mass Effect.
  • At around the age of thirty our hero dies in space, to be resurrected some two years later following the efforts of both friends and villains.
  • Still in the early thirties, Shepard [finally?] dies. Dying while saving the galaxy still counts as dying.
Look at this list. I have to be insane to give up my comfortable life for that. Or would I? Perhaps the admission price is worth the chance to own the captain’s quarters in the coolest spaceship ever, mingle with aliens and sport biotic powers? Let us therefore examine things further.

Assuming I am willing to accept the glory of being Commander Shepard together with all the crap the goes with being the first human Spectre, there is the matter of me being somewhat different in character to the esteemed Commander. Somewhat significantly so.
For a start, my preferred Commander would be a woman; I am a man. Differences do not come any more basic than that.
More importantly, I would never make the same choices Shepard is routinely making in the game. When the first impossible mission would knock on my door in this no longer a video game reality of a world, you would not see me going “let’s kick ass!”; you would probably find me locked up in the ship’s toilets. In the better case scenario you would witness me delegating away mission pleasures to better qualified red shirts.
In other words, I cannot be me and Commander Shepard at the same time; the two, I am very glad to say, are incompatible. I hope that when called I would rise to the occasion, Shepard style, but I am far from optimistic about the odds of that happening. Let us be optimistic and assume that I do: in that case, I can certainly say I would never make the same type of choices the Commander makes in the game. Instead of fighting the baddies, I would try to intercept communications; instead of blowing things up I would try to engineer solutions.
It all comes down to one simple truth: by definition, I cannot be both Shepard and myself at the same time. In other words, there can be no serious answer to the original question my wife asked me.

The only question that can still be asked is whether I would like to experience what Shepard has experienced first hand. To that I can provide a simple answer: Sure I do. In fact, over the last year or so I have been doing exactly that for prolonged periods of time.
When you think about it, It really is a case of the sky's the limit. I was Bilbo, I was Sam and I was Corwin. Now I am Commander Shepard.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The tale has a tragic element to it. I am constantly surrounding myself with some of the best video games ever: Bastion, Need for Speed, Little Big Planet 2, Little Big Planet Karting, Journey, Borderlands 2 - you name it. I play the games, I enjoy them, but then I [generally] put them to the side. Why? Because ultimately, I much prefer to play Mass Effect yet again than play any of these other titles. It is clear Sinéad O'Connor knew what she was singing about: Nothing compares to you, Mass Effect.
I tried to answer the question of why this specific game is as good as it is before (see here and here for examples). I realize by now that the answer is complicated, but I will still try and address the question further.
I will start with that test I recently put Chuck, currently my favorite TV series, through. The test of chauvinism, if you would like to put a name to it. To remind you, Chuck failed the test - and rather miserably so: its female characters were single dimensional, there to act as ornaments to the male character at the center. Not so for Mass Effect!
Mass Effect cruises through this test in flying colors. Not only does it have numerous female characters, each of these female characters a well developed independent person with her own stories and agendas. It's not all cutie-cutie either: With one character, Liara, the story starts with you having to deal with her now turned evil mother; with another, Ashleigh, you have to deal with xenophobia. Regardless, your character is not the only thing in these female characters' lives.
Being closer to the cutting edge of progressiveness is a sign that there is something more to Mass Effect; Mass Effect could be better than the rest. But what is it, then, that gives it the edge?
The first hint of that comes with the games' interactiveness. To take the discussion on gaming feminism further, players can choose to establish relationships with both female and male characters. Human to human gay and lesbian options are perfectly fine (in Mass Effect 3; the previous 2 titles do not offer this option), but then again there is always the option for inter-species relationships. With sex, too, albeit clumsily handled sex.
Even more further reaching is the ability of the player to play a female character in the first place. As I have argued before, I find playing Femshep (the fans' term for Female Commander Shepard) a much more rewarding experience, starting from what I consider superior voice acting and moving on to the innovative feeling of being a woman. Let's face it, it's the closest I ever got to being one... The point is, Mass Effect does not only tell a story; it actively puts the player (you!) inside the story. It does not tell a linear story where your role is, in essence, fixed; its story varies depending on your actions, thus allowing you to enjoy being a goodie (a Paragon, in the game's own terms) or a nasty piece of work (a Renegade).
While interactions with other characters in the plot department do have their simplistic limitations, other types of interactions work at the instinctive level. For example, when cooperating in battle with Garrus as he is covering your advances with well aimed sniper shots; or when syncing biotic attacks with Liara to create devastating biotic explosions (sorry for using game terminology; hope you catch the drift). These things work in the sense that I have found myself developing genuine feelings towards these fictional characters, similar to that team spirit feeling one gets when working hard on a joint project with work colleagues. Garrus, Liara and I have been through many adventures together, even if they were all entirely fictional. In my house these are now household names even with the members who never played the games; surely this counts for something.
The same, by the way, applies to the less friendlier characters. The varying qualities that make certain characters appealing in my eyes make others potentially appeal to other players (the words "Miranda" and "bitch" come to my mind in the game's specific context). Beauty, or whatever other subjective trait you can think of, are in the eye of the beholder playing the game.
This brings me to my final conclusion. The Mass Effect trilogy of games is, in my view, the greatest video game there is because of the way its story is told. That delicate way in which the story weaves itself around the player's preference acts as a beacon to all other forms of story telling. As good as it is, Mass Effect's may not be the greatest story ever told; not by a long shot (although, to my mind, it is far superior to both Star Wars and Star Trek). However, never in the history of human civilization has a story been better told than Mass Effect's.
Story telling is thus the real revolution brought by this video game. With all due respect to books and movies, I have seen the light. Behold the future of story telling in the online/interactive age: Play Mass Effect.


Image rights: io9. I recommend you to read io9's views on Mass Effect here.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

My New Games Console

iPad 4 and Mini

The records of this blog clearly indicate I was a skeptic with regards to the iPad (see here and here, if you insist). We still bought one, eventually (here), and now that I am looking at it from this side of things I can clearly see how I’m using it more and more.
One doesn’t need much in the way of statistics; all it takes is looking at how often we charge its battery. What used to last us more than two weeks between charges can now last as little as a couple of days. Between its accessibility, portability and ease of use, the iPad is finding itself used more and more as the preferred tool for my media consumption (in plain English, everything that does not require the extensive use of a keyboard). I like its more esoteric uses even more, like the way I use it as a remote control for my Apple TV or for my Mac.

There are two particular iPad uses I would like to discuss in this post. The first one is gaming, where I simply want to say how great an iPad can be in the gaming department. So great that, in many respects, it is far superior to full fledged gaming consoles.
I am not talking about the games of the type we first saw on the iPhone, games that later grew to fill the iPad’s bigger screen. No, I am not talking about your Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope or Plants vs. Zombies, even though they have to be commended for offering excellent gamesmanship for a mere few dollars.
No, I’m talking about games of the type that would not shame a console or a PC, games like the latest Need for Speed or Bastion; even the HD version of Monopoly can be counted here. In my opinion, the visceral “in your face” element of the iPad, couple with good headphones and a UI that fully utilizes the iPad interface (as opposed to a port) can lead to gaming experience superior to that of the consoles. That, at least, is my opinion on Need for Speed (a game I can directly compare to the PS3) or Bastion.
My point is simply that the iPad totally revolutionizes the video gaming arena in a manner that most people (and console manufacturers) seem unable to realize thus far. The ability to pick it up and play, and continue playing as I go places, earns it points no console can earn. That said, console manufacturers need not worry; their product have their uses. In my particular case there is one [big] factor that helps keep the iPad as my distant number two gaming option, but I’ll discuss that in another post [this post is now here]. I can clearly see where the future is heading, though.

The iPad does not only aspire to cannibalize my current gaming habits. It’s also making inroads into my reading habits, which is the second thing I wanted to discuss in this post.
You might find this hard to believe, but I do spend a lot of time on the Internet. The thing about the iPad is that it is an incredibly efficient tool with which to consume the Internet: it is almost as portable as a smartphone but is not as fiddly to use, while on the other hand offering most of the functionality of a PC but in a much more agile packaging.
The result is that when combined with Twitter, I can spend hours and hours consuming stuff from all over the web. Because my Twitter followingship is mostly list based, I can even direct my consumption. If I want to read IT stuff, I will follow this list and see where it takes me; if I want to follow up the latest in matters of civil liberties, I will follow that list; and so on. The quantities and the rates of update on Twitter mean that, essentially, I have a never ending stream of interesting stuff pushed in my direction; all I need to do is pull. The iPad makes that pulling easier than ever.
The point about this whole Internet consumption thing is that it competes very directly with my book reading. It has a couple of advantages in this age of the short attention span: there are no off moments, like a book’s boring parts; if one is bored then there is always something else to look at. And it is always up to date.
The only limitations the iPad has when compared to my Kindle ebook reader are its screen, which is significantly inferior for prolonged text based reading, and the fact that outside my house Internet connection is not as reliable. But that’s it; it’s the erratic nature of Internet connectivity on trains and the generally slower/more expensive nature of mobile Internet that is holding the iPad back here. These, however, are only technical factors, and we can see them improving before our eyes: I think the Optus 3G network is significantly better today than it was a year ago. I also suspect it’s just a matter of time before 4G enjoys cutthroat pricing (we’re basically waiting for the more affluent market segments to saturate).
Once these technical issues are addressed, and probably long before that, the iPad and its compatriot tablets will conquer the ebook reader. Their versatility and online prowess guarantees it. More prophetically, I suspect the future of reading lies less with books and more with flexible online interactive contents. As in, we will not be reading less lengthy books from start to finish and more interactive stuff that is similar to books but more versatile in form, potentially even changing as the reading goes on. Again, I will further touch on that matter in that future post I already promised you above [this post is now here].

Where am I leading to with this post?
Simple. The above represents my reasoning for getting myself a 32GB iPad Mini.
Why 32GB? Because our current 16GB is not large enough to hold all the games I would like to be able to play; currently, I find myself deleting and reinstalling stuff to accommodate my “needs”.
Why an iPad Mini? Because it features many of the advantages my Kindle has, including lightness and the ability to use with one hand. I consider the 7”-8” the optimal size for a portable tablet I can stick in my bag and carry with me everywhere. My current 10” iPad is too much of a heavy brick for me to carry along without second thought.
Rumor has it Apple will release the Mini’s second generation in March, this time with what their marketing department refers to as a “Retina” display. Assuming that screen does not sacrifice too much out of the battery, I very much see myself in line to get one.


Image by andyi, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Patriarchal Hollywood

Twitter had me start my morning watching this TED talk video. It deals with the chauvinism of Hollywood, how it sends the wrong messages to our children with regards to the roles of males and females, and what us parents can do about it. It's also quite funny. I recommend you watch it:



The timing of this talk dropping into my attention is interesting, because I have been meaning to post a similar analysis myself. Obviously, this TED guy did a better job than I could ever do, but I would still want to point out the subtle ways in which Hollywood sends us those patriarchal messages it specializes in. It's the subtlety that ensures it digs in.
Given that we, my wife and I, are spending these days marathoning through episodes of Chuck, and given that Chuck seems to be the best thing that happened for me on TV in the past decade or so, I will pick on that particular TV show. Because I expect the most from the ones I love the most.

It occurred to me in an episode where the otherwise blond Yvonne Strahovski (playing the character of CIA agent Sarah Walker) put on a dark hair wig as a "cover". My wife quickly pointed out that the character that's on our screen was the non computer generated image of Mass Effect's Miranda, and I have to admit - it was a weird feeling, seeing that character I know so well from a game I like so much look me in the eye in human form. [Miranda, in case you don't know, is a computer game character that has been created using Strahovski's voice and likeness. You can see a photo comparison of the two here.]
It occurred to me just how powerful an impression those images that I see on the screen have on me. It does not seem to matter whether these impressions come from a computer game or a TV show or a movie; regalrdless of source, they go through the firewalls and deep inside my consciousness. As such, they have the potential to bear damage.
Oh, there is plenty of damage to be done by Chuck. True, the series has multiple female characters at center stage, but it's also true that these characters mainly revolve around the series' main man (Chuck). More specifically, the main female character, the aforementioned Sarah Walker, is clearly there to satisfy the wet dreams of this world's geek community. Everything about this James Bond in a super model's body is designed for this role, including the obligatory underwear only scene almost every episode sports.
The nastiest example I have detected thus far comes from left field, though. Towards the end of season 3, when Chuck and Sarah finally get together after years/seasons of keeping their feelings to themselves, there starts a process of them trying to learn more about the person they love. Chuck asks Sarah what her favorite music is, and Sarah answers with something along the lines of "as a spy, I never had time for music". Thus Chuck takes it upon himself to give Sarah a music lesson using Nina Simone's Feeling Good, with the result here for you to see:



Oh my goddess, how artificial can things be in Chuck-land?
First, spy or no spy, can we truly expect a 21st century girl not to have any musical preferences (despite owning and using an iPhone)?
Second, why does Sarah say she likes the song after listening to less than ten seconds and before the band joins in? Can one really like a song they hear for the first time by virtue of its first few seconds? I find it similar to a Stone Age person claiming to like Ferraris after being given a glimpse of their catalog. Artificiality alert!
Third, and most importantly, there is the institution of sharing one's music with one's loved ones. I am talking here as a guy who, being of limited means with which to attract members of the opposite sex but being blessed with ample familiarity in cool music, did often engage potential attractions through musical means. It's not just me, books have been written on this subject matter - check out High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (also a Hollywood movie), a book that for a brief while I deemed as my favorite by virtue of how much it reminded me of myself. My point is, it is every [geek] boy's wet dream to have a lover who shares their taste in music.
Now for the clencher: The manifestation of the dream in which the boy teaches the girl what good music is all about goes awfully near the the point the above TED presentation was trying to make. The point about Hollywood teaching us that boys are there to save the girls.
The musically ignorant Sarah, the Chuck who is there to save her and introduce her to good music - all these are no coincidences. These are all carefully planted tools to satisfy some deep desires within the [male] viewer, desires that have been lurking there through the fault of past exposure to movies and TV shows. It is very much a chicken and egg problem.
I fell for it. I am falling for it right now. However, it is also very clear to me that Hollywood is damaging us viewers. And if Hollywood is some sort of a mirror that reflects what is going on in American society, I would say there is a lot to be scared of.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Summertime Sadness



School holidays are coming to an end, we are back from our summer time vacation, and our overseas guests are gone. Even our supply of Chuck episodes is starting to run out. Is it any wonder I seem to be in a rather saddish mood?
Yes. But I argue that it’s all the good things that came with this summer that are making me sad. It's the winding down of the better as the prospect of another year at the office beckons. With the fading of those good things one big issue surfaces yet again: we, and for that matter I, are severely lacking in the friendships department.
I said it before. I have friends in Australia, but nothing that can be compared to the intensity of my childhood friendships from Israel; the latter are still very much there, but Israel is a bit far from Melbourne. The problem, therefore, is in my inability to create strong and frequent friendships in Australia.
Work doesn’t look like a source of salvation. It comes down to two things: I’m too different from the majority of the people I work with, and the individual nature of my work means I do not get the opportunities I used to in the past to become close to people through the experience of doing stuff together. Then there is the matter of the physical world we live in: people like I, and the people I am likely to befriend, are people with responsibilities and a life; not the people that would jump over for a quick round of Settlers of Catan.
The alternative I have been clinging to, perhaps too strongly, is the virtual world. Once geography is out of the equation one can befriend the most exciting people ever (or, more appropriately, people with whom one has a lot in common). Alas, the virtual world can only take me that far. Friendships limited to 140 characters cannot go too far; they are not true friendships but rather short snippets of someone’s character, snippets that may have not much to do with that someone’s true character. Then there is the fact that virtual friendships are not that easy to acquire: because of the casual nature of things online, no one goes out to invest in creating proper friendships. Friendships are created, but they just spontaneously combust into existence; they tend to only happen over longer periods of time and only when there are significant common interests.
It looks like I just need to shut up and learn to accept reality. Eventually, the ordeals of regular life would divert my attention elsewhere.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

This land is your land, this land is my land

Android vs. iOS

I remember tweeting, about a year ago, on the status quo at the meeting room I was in: 10 iPhones vs. 2 Androids. In the course of a year or so the tables have turned. True, we are not talking about 10 Androids to 2 iPhones but rather more along the lines of 7 to 5, but the title sure did change hands. What seemed previously impossible, dethroning the ever so dominant iPhone, has been achieved. Based upon yours truly’s street observations, Australia is no longer iPhone land.
The interesting question is why did this change happen. My theory? It’s a price tag thing.
Apple based its dominance on being technologically superior. That’s a marketing line that is hard to maintain over time. As the two last generations of the iPhone indicate, Apple agrees: neither the 4S nor the iPhone 5 were game changers; in contrast, Android devices offered tons of diversification and variance, including in the price tag. That price tag is where Apple refused to budge.
The majority of the people, those that want a smartphone but are far from tickling their device’s full potential, reacted. They moved to a system that gives them all the functionality they need at a much cheaper price. Victory was Android’s.
People tend to get emotional over the whole Android vs. iOS thing. It is therefore important to stress that Android’s victory was not achieved by virtue of Android’s open source ideology or open architecture; most punters couldn’t care less about these things. It was a simple affair of value for money. Deep down, most of those people that used to have an iPhone but left it for a Samsung will tell you they prefer Apple’s operating system that “just works”. They do not, however, see the point in paying hundreds of extra dollars for the benefit of owning an Apple device that looks exactly like the old one they just got rid of.
Which brings me to an interesting twist that's coming at one particular market segment: the younger generation, the one that’s old enough to buy their own smartphones but young enough to consider the smartphone their elders use - the iPhone - uncool. These folks seems to shun the iPhone almost entirely
My prediction? I see Android taking further and further steps into the market, by virtue of its ability to offer a variety of products from phablets to el-cheapos. Apple’s will be generally recognized as the superior yet niche product.


Image by _Max-B, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Saying I Love You

First, an apology: Yes, this is another post dealing with the TV series Chuck. That said, I hope this post will break out of the boundaries of a TV series and into general relevancy.

Our ongoing nightly crusade through Chuck's episodes is continuing. Last night, upon us arriving to roughly the middle of season 3 (out of 5, which means we crossed the overall halfway point), a landmark event the series managed to hold back for two and a half seasons thus far took place:



Yes, Chuck (Zachary Levi) finally got to explicitly tell Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) that he loves her.
The event is so pivotal to the lifeline of the series that it immediately raised three questions in my head, questions which are the subject of this post.
First, how come I managed to suffer so far through a series that made the wait for this inevitability stretch for so long? That is a rather trivial question for which the answer is "it doesn't really matter". It doesn't matter because I love Chuck (the series) for numerous reasons, romance being the lesser one. The primary one is the ease with which I can identify with the hero Chuck - a smart nerd not living to half his potential. Series 3 damaged this identification factor when it made Chuck into a genuine spy as opposed to a normal guy that happens to fall inside a spies' trap, but never mind: there are plenty of well developed supporting characters that make the series worthy of watching by themselves.

The second and far more interesting question/pondering deals with the status jump Chuck is perceived to be taking when confessing his love to Sarah. The series primes us to believe, through various techniques it pulls out of its sleeve, that Sarah is the most beautiful thing ever while Chuck is an ordinary, if talented, geek. Clearly, that is not true, because Zachary Levi is fine looking by his own rights; there are a very few not good looking Hollywood stars out there. Regardless, the charm of the romance at hand is in the rugs to riches materialization of the dream that all guys have - to get the girl, and not just any girl, the best looking girl. Sort of a Pride and Prejudice for boys.
I will now recruit evolutionary biology to help me make the point. Gil Greengross discusses the point in his pop evo biology blog (see the Hebrew original here; feel free to use Google to translate the post to English for you, a feat that's done incredibly easily via the Google Chrome browser). Greengross is arguing that research shows we are all after the perfect mate, and that for the male amongst us "perfect" usually means good looking. However, we tend to settle for less based on our status and resources; the better looking amongst us can afford to make less compromises and pick the top of the crop, leaving the rest of us to pick up the chaff.
It's easy to dismiss these arguments. Granted, they only work as some sort of a law of averages. However, I urge you to think about it before you go ahead with your dismissal: how often do you hear of a Hollywood star that's married to an "ordinary" person? Or, for that matter, any celebrity that marries "beneath" them? Look around, and I suspect you will see people tend to settle with their likes in both status and looks.
Chuck's romance manages to create some sort of a catharsis with its viewers exactly because it manages to pretend to defy this universal law.

My last question goes back to the beginning: why do people hesitate to inform others of their love? Why couldn't Chuck tell Sarah he loves her back in episode 1 or 2, and get it over with?
The short answer is that the episode 1 feelings were more of an infatuation; by season three, with its alleged two and a half years in between, proper love can develop. I, however, will argue there is more to this than meets the eye.
I will let the voice of my experience do the talking. Long before I met my wife I have been through many a relationship where it was clear each side had feelings towards the other but it was also clear that through one reason or another each of the sides had reasons not to expose their sensitive side to the other. As I matured through the years I realized nothing good can come out of this and decided on transparency being the best policy (an approach I still hold on to as a general philosophy to life in general; this blog is proof). However, I noticed openness did not get me too far either: usually, by exposing the depths of my feelings to my relationship partner, I was seeming to create some sort of an intimidation effect. Again, most of my relationships fell apart quickly. (On the positive side, I did not get to hold on to feeble relationships just for the sake of being in a relationship.)
I will turn to Gil Greengross again (see here; refer to my previous Hebrew alert and how to deal with it). His research backed opinion is that it is men that usually get to be the ones to say "I love you" first. However, they do so because they are motivated: they want to get laid, and they perceive that by expressing love they will get their sooner rather than later. Women are not dumb; they can tell what's going on, or at least they are aware of what usually takes place with men's claim of love. Circumstances dictate perceptions. Each side has their own strategy, and the whole thing gets messed up.
In other words, I can sympathize with Chuck the guy. Even when one is trying their best to be honest and express their true feelings, biology makes it hard for us. Thus Chuck, together with more stories of romance than a mortal can count, can stretch a seemingly simple love affair over years and years.
Us humans are complicated creatures. It is almost as if we enjoy making the life of our peers hard.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Anti Social, Part 2

Beyonce Knowles

My adventures into the realm of celebrity social media continued (you're welcome to refer to my original discussion here). For example, this week I learned the following from my Mass Effect related celebrities:
  1. It seems a celebrity is often occupied with glamor photos of themselves, even if - in the eyes of yours truly - those photos are less than flattering to their subject (albeit filled with talented photography). Do not ask me what purpose these photos are meant to serve.
  2. I learned celebrities occupy themselves by posing at awards ceremonies. Me, I preferred the attitude of another celebrity to these events. Actually, I prefer to ignore these events altogether.
  3. I witnessed how paparazzi can invade the privacy of fellow human beings and stop at nothing to make a buck out of it.
Clearly, I have been wasting my time with Twitter here. But is that always the case?
No, actually. Through following of Mass Effect people I learned about the game Borderlands 2, to a point it became clear I would like the game. Having now bought it and played it [a bit] I can confirm the game rocks. I also learned of the existence of the TV series Tron: Uprising, which not only features some interesting actors, it also seem to feature interesting themes set in the interesting Tron world.
By now the picture seems clearer. Mass Effect people do not come in one shape and size. Some of them have been involved by virtue of their pretty face and voice; some have been there to write the script and others designed and coded the game. It is of no coincidence that I find the latter's inputs more interesting than the former's.
It is also a case of what people choose to do with their Twitter accounts. Some choose to use it for self promotion, often almost exclusively; which seems fine by their fans, but also seems to offer nothing more than short term appeal to me. Others, however, use Twitter to interact with the world: to offer views and capture some back.
It all comes down to this. Celebrities are no different to any other person. Some are interesting, some are not; some choose to be interesting, some do not. By now I learned my lesson: it's nice to see a pretty face from time to time, but let's face it - pretty faces are a dime a dozen on the Internet. My time, my precious time, is going to be invested on those that can offer substance in return.


Image by Joe Shlabotnik, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Parking Congregation

_DSC8420

We see them more and more whenever we go out. Groups made of people that up until that particular moment did not know their peers existed, all huddled around one focal point and all united by a single cause: finding enough change to feed into the f*cking parking meter.
I noticed it when we recently visited Melbourne's St Kilda beach. I noticed it when we visited Katoomba (at The Blue Mountains near Sydney) today. The cause is the same: local councils, greedy for extra income, erect parking meters. Upon the initial installation these meters only require a dollar or so for adequate parking. With the food comes the appetite, though, and the local councils raise their tariffs so that now the cost of an hour's worth of parking is $5 or even more. In order for the average bloke to make the average restaurant visit, for example, more change is required than your average piggy bank can hold - not to mention your average wallet.
The local councils don't care, though. Why should they invest money in allowing people to pay with credit cards or, heaven forbid, their smartphone? No, they'll use the same old machines and put the toll of coming up with coins on the ever so desperate citizen. Because they care.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Chuck Diaries

It occurred to me, as we are making our way through the series Chuck, that I could have easily written a dedicated blog to my impressions and thoughts of each episode. The result could be nice: it could map my journey across the series, and given the state of the series' fandom it is probably going to eclipse the popularity of everything else I put online.
I decided against the idea, eventually, but not without second thoughts. There is the usual "I don't have time" excuse, but more importantly we are a bit too far down the series for me to start now; going back to episode 1 while pretending I don't know what happens on episode 2 would be a bit of a cheat.
Instead, and for now, I will settle with mentioning one stellar episode. It has our hero, Chuck, leaving his job at Buy More in favor of this high-tech company that is oh-so-obviously made to look and feel like Apple. Its offices look like the real thing, its product launches look like the real thing with all the fake hoo-ha and the loyal flocks of cheering crowds, and its CEO (Chevy Chase) is dressed and made to look the Steve Jobs part. Only that the company is a front to an evil organization with Chase being the architect of evil.
Brilliant.


Chuck image: NBC

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Equality for Religion

The Imperial family

I was reminded on one of religion's main claim the other day when the five of us were locked in a car driving to Sydney for many hours.
One way or another - it's all rather blurry, as the driver I was mostly focused on the music that was there to keep me sharp - the matter of Baby Jesus' story came up. Grandmother asked my son whether he believes in it. My son answered that he doesn't, but as one can expect from a five year old he wasn't particularly decisive in his reply; the grandmother pressed on, while my wife - knowing fully well what was about to happen - reminded me that "religion is the one thing we do not discuss".
Do I really need to tell you what took place next? I expressed my opinion on the authenticity of the Baby Jesus story in as concise and explicit manner as I could (I believe I used the professional term "bullshit"). I was ready to take on challenges and provide detailed examples but that was the end of the story; people do seem afraid to challenge matters of religion.
Which is the exact problem I want to talk about here. Why should that be the case? Why should we take religion out of the discussion board? Why should the raising of matters of religion - or rather, the raising of contradicting opinions on matters of religion - act as an automatic cue for changing the subject? Why is it, exactly, that we give religion such a privilege?
I argue for the exat opposite. The more central and/or important a subject matter is to us, the more we should dissect it, discuss it and analyze it. Religion, as the claimed center of most people's beliefs and moral system, should be on our discussion board day and night.
I can see why it doesn't want to be there. It is as obvious as the sun on a summer day: if society was to allow itself to openly discuss religion, we wouldn't have had religion to discuss. In other words, the social tabboo we have on our hands here is a sophisticated bullshit survival mechanism. We should therefore do society a favor and help dismantle it: we should bring the fallacies of religion to the forefront of discussion at every opportunity.


Image by Kalexanderson, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Climbing the High Heel

Sitting at a chocolate cafe right near the Sydney Opera House last night, I couldn't avoid noting the stream of best dressed women heading towards that famous institution. It was a hot Friday night, so as one can expect the view was a rather pleasant one. Unless, of course, one took note - the way I did - of the ridiculously high heeled shoes most of these women were wearing. They were walking on stilts, many of them struggling to take their steps, others having an even worse time when they happened to land in between pavers.
I know I ain't no night animal. Since my son was born I hardly get to see what the world looks like in the dark. Maybe I'm out of touch, but I could not avoid focusing on the tragedy at hand, the pathetic caravan of the self inflicted.
I then raised the matter before my wife. Her reply was, as usual, interesting. What else can a woman do to make herself look tall, slim and long legged when "everywhere she looks she is told she needs to have legs like Yvonne Strahovski?"
I was a bit buffled by that reply. I have been exposed to a lot of Yvonne Strahovski over the past year, I fully acknowledge her great looks, yet I never seem to have taken any particular note of her legs. It therefore seems likely women see things different to men. Adding to my confusion is the fact I was never the type to mingle with the stereotype that is likely to wear high heels of the extreme type in the first place: these are exactly the type of women who would dismiss me as a nerd and wouldn't spare me a second glance. I learned to accept and even embrace that over the course of my bachelor years.
More importantly, though, my wife's input to the question raises the question of what do man look for in a woman? Do man really care about the high heels? Am I two faced for dismissing high heels but then choosing to befriend Strahovski's character in Mass Effect 2? More broadly, the question comes down to this - when given the choice between two otherwise identical women, do men in general and I in particular prefer the made up one over the natural one? On that simple question lies an entire multibillion dollar industry.
I can give you the answer I tend to normally give, that I prefer the natural look, but then again that would be a lie; not because I don't prefer the natural, but because I cannot deny my eye - the way I suspect most men's eyes work - does occasionally lock on that made up woman. I cannot tell how far does this attraction goes, though; I would like to think it is minimal. I know fully well that even the best looking women go to the toilet and wake up in the morning looking like hell; by now I also know what age can add to the equation. All the makeup and the high heels in the world cannot make superficial eye catching beauty last.
In my view, the makeup and the high heels in particular are therefore more about submission than beauty. Do I want "my" women to be submissive? No, definitely not, and I think my record speaks for itself. Do other men prefer their women to be submissive? Almost certainly so, probably because in one way or another they are afraid of the feminine.
I have now gone through a complete circle: women end up needing to wear high heels in order to patch up the insecurities of men. What a lovely world we live in!

6/2/13 update:
I hit upon this news of scientific research into women wearing high heels (see here for Hebrew original, here for the Google Translate English version, or here for the actual research paper). Apparently, high heels work to make women more attractive by working on us the way porn does to make us think those who wear them are extra feminine by virtue of the way they walk.

Friday, 11 January 2013

iPhone 5 notes

Now that I've been using my new iPhone 5 for a couple of weeks, there are two points I would like to make about it.
First, when I do get to pick my old iPhone 3GS up and use it - and I have been using it as my GPS and as a music player - it feels so clunky and slow it is, in effect, unbearably unusable. Sure, it's fine for sacrificing in my car on the frying windshield, but it is such a pain to use I do wonder how I managed for so long.
Second, I'm repeatedly surprised by how good and how user friendly the camera on the iPhone 5 is. I suspect that is the case with all current flagship smartphones, but for me it's a novelty. It just works, the results are good, it's always there, and even photo post processing is easily done on the spot. I'm at a point where I choose to use the iPhone's camera even while carrying my SLR on me just because of that ease of use. I know the result won't be as good, but I also know that in most cases it won't matter. Check the above as a case in point.
I'm quite happy with my new phone. They say it even makes calls.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The First Resort

Having a tough week? Relax @ Universal Studios Singapore

Spending time at home during this holiday season, we noticed this weird new sensation: we noticed that we are able to spend entire days at home and not feel like we wasted the day.
It’s not like staying home is a new thing for me. I spent significant periods of my life indoors, in the company of books, computers, music and videos. This time it’s different, though: we’re at home but it feels like we’re going out. It feels like we’re at some sort of a resort, only that there’s excellent Internet connectivity, facilities and food. A resort where it appears as if everything was tailored exactly to our needs and specifications.
Trying to analyze the feeling brings forth a simple conclusion: we like our recently extended house. It offers us the room to do things we haven’t been able to do before. It’s not only the house that is working well: as far as I can tell, in the past month we have used our renovated garden more than we did the entire decade before. The difference? This time around the yard was done according to our specifications, rather than by someone wanting the house to look good when selling it [to us].
Between a new lounge chair and a hammock from Aldi, there is plenty of room to relax and enjoy ourselves. An afternoon nap on said hammock definitely qualifies as one of the more relaxing activities I can entertain. If, that is, my son and I can stop arguing over its services.


Image by williamcho, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Anti Social

Social Media

I've been into Twitter for several years now, and up until recently I tended to use it in what turned out to be a very particular way. I would use it for news/updates as well as following up on people whose views I considered important. And I was happy; I thought the level of discussion is pretty good considering the character limit. Or, in other words, it served my needs.
More recently, though, my usage pattern changed. As things go, this was yet again because of the Mass Effect game I love so much: instead of following up on people whose views I considered important, I started following people just because they are related in one way or another to the Mass Effect game. This included community managers, people in the gaming industry, and also voice actors. Just like that god dude in that famous creation fable, I saw things were good and I expanded my followingship: I started following actors from Chuck. I even followed singers and other performers.
As can be expected, the level of discussion is at an order of magnitude lower than what I was previously used to. Instead of reading Richard Dawkins philosophize, I got to witness the latest pair of shoes modeled by the woman who gave her likeness to a video game character. With time I noticed I am actually enjoying this; over time, I actually got to know some of these celebrities to a level unimaginable in the pre social media age. I am under no illusions this image is a true representation of their real character; the point is it does not matter: it is still a billion times more than fans of, say, Led Zeppelin were able to access just a few decades ago.
The main problem (other than the corruption of my brain with, let's face it, crap) is the way Twitter quickly turns into some twisted form of Facebook. With the food comes the appetite and the need to know what's going on with this or that celebrity's latest adventure; what is the latest joke they've said, or where are they having dinner today? It sounds pathetic, I know, but it's addictive. It's addictive because us humans are social creatures by nature.

By far the worst aspect of this matter is to do with the way certain people take their addiction into disturbing realms. I will give you a few examples.
First we have Zachary Levi, the star of Chuck, who twitted the following:
Twitter take the wheel.
At the moment of me writing this, this tweet has earned 4 replies, 146 retweets and 146 favorites. What the hell is going on with people?
Then we have Lana Del Rey, the singer whose album Born to Die is currently starring at the top of my personal music list. She, or probably a PR person working on her behalf, tweeted a composite photo of Del Rey with Marilyn Monroe. The first reply to that tweet was:
YES BITCH YEA
What the hell is going on here? I can figure this out in one of two ways. Either the person replying knows Del Rey on a personal basis to a level where the two are comfortable calling each other "bitch", in which case they should still be aware of their correspondence being publicly recorded for prosperity. Or, the more worrying option, we have a rather scary fan on our hands here.
My last example comes from Yvonne Strahovski, star of both Mass Effect and Chuck. Strahovski put a fairly innocent photo of hers on Instagram, which is fine; like all of us she has the need to socialize, and in her profession she also has the need to create some PR. But one reply caught my eye, and not for its bad grammar alone:
Your so gorgeous, I dream I randomly run into you one day. Would never be so lucky lol.
I don't know about you, but I find this rather disturbing. Or, to put it another way, I would not like to receive such messages myself; this is the type of thing that, lol at the end or not, would make me worry for my personal safety.

At this stage I can only conclude that social media, while providing us with great tools to know the world through, is also a bit of a double edged sword. It's a powerful tool, but it also exposes some of the lesser sides of humanity. My lesson? Tread carefully. And by the goddess, remember that everything you put up there is in the public domain, to be used against you one fine day.


Image by AslanMedia, Creative Commons license 

9/1/13 update:
I'm pretty sure she doesn't read my blog, and I'm also sure she didn't read this post prior to its publication, but today Strahovski tweeted a link to Del Rey music video.
Coincidence? Obviously. But a sign of good taste in music, too.
By the way, thus far this particular tweet received 3 replies, 83 retweets and 154 favorites.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Friends Will Be Friends

"Friendship" Monument

One of my favorite fictional characters at the moment is Chuck's John Casey, the hard knuckle bully of an NSA agent in charge of looking after the series’ hero (and the counterweight to the similarly tasked but sexy female CIA agent). In one of the episodes Casey says he doesn’t have any friends because, ultimately, friend fail you.
I was thinking about that observation in light learning gradually, over the past month or so, that most of my Australian friends are sending their children to Catholic schools. They do so despite many if not most not being of Catholic heritage, despite some of them claiming to be agnostic (although some still shivered when I let loose with my opinion on the concept commonly referred to as “hell”), and despite the fact some acknowledge Catholicism to equal bullshit. One even makes the claim that Catholic schools are fine because the children are able to filter out the crap, a claim that is obviously wrong by virtue of the fact religion is very much still here and has been here for many a generation. Indeed, I would say that last claim is a typical lazy Australian one, spoken by one who is generally unexposed to the harms of religion through living in a generally peaceful country.
I, on the other hand, consider the very concept of Catholic schools a crime against humanity in the sense that we are indoctrinating children without giving them a saying on the matter. There is a reason why we don’t let kids vote before they are 18; why should we impose a dubious framework for life on them before they are even remotely able to make their own minds up?
The question I found myself asking is whether religion is going to prove itself my biggest friends’ alienator yet again. As in, many people giving this blog a read stop doing so when they hit upon my views on matters of religion. Will this alienation now apply beyond the borders of the virtual world?
This time, however, the onus is on me: my friends are obviously fine with Catholic schools; however, can I truly consider myself someone’s friend when that so called friend is sending their child to a Catholic school? I don't argue us being able to be friends in the more casual sense of the word, that of the “good morning” and the polite “how are you” level; but can we be true friends, best friends, with such a shadow looming over the friendship?
This question is often asked in reverse context; it is not limited to the matter of Catholic education. Say, for instance, a Christian befriends a Muslim through one circumstance or another: can the two become true friends when each of the two is sure their colleague is on the highway to hell, a sinner from head to two that could well be raising future generations of sinners?
I don’t know what my Muslim and Christian colleagues might think, but I know I do not like the John Casey point of view. The reality is that shadows loom over all friendships and religion is just one of them (albeit one of the worst). The reality is that the entire concept of friendship revolves around being there for your friend even when times are tough; occasionally we might enjoy wrapping ourselves with them, but none of us needs fair weather friends.
I therefore conclude that friendships move through this continuum of quality. That continuum goes through ups and downs the way everything else does, and that continuum is affected by degrees. Ultimately, though, religion is not necessarily an inhibitor of friendships. Where there’s a will there should be a way.


Image by redteam, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 6 January 2013

All that I can't leave behind




Earlier this evening I've been told off by a relative: you are working at a comfortable job; but what are you doing for the soul after work?
This is not the first time I feel misunderstood by my family, for whom my messing about with computers is as unfathomable as an automobile would be to a neanderthal. They simply fail to see the possibilities an interconnected world of computers can provide. I would therefore like to share with you two of tonight's achievements in response.
First, together with my wife I got to watch two more episodes of Chuck. Although these were probably among the weakest of the series thus far (we're in the middle of season 2 out of 5), being that they dealt mostly with the impossible romance between the series' geek and the series' femme fatale, I am hooked way past addiction. I'll explain it this way: yesterday, a 42 degree day at Melbourne, was a day we decided not to risk switching our electronics on for fear of frying them; today, in direct response to this Chuck-less day, I found myself humming the Chuck theme song all day long. In between playing Chuck's music on Spotify, of course. I dread the day we finish going through the series' 90+ episodes. A soul without Chuck is an incomplete soul.
Second, I got to finish Mass Effect 3's campaign yet again. This time around I did it with the character I had raised and developed through Mass Effect 2, thus bringing far more substance to the story of Mass Effect 3. Even though I knew what's to happen I still felt mesmerized, and not only by Liara telling me she loves my female avatar minutes before the latter decided to sacrifice herself for the sake of the galaxy. Look at the fan created image above and tell me the game does not inspire "souls".
Third, now I am here to blog about it all at an insane hour that should have seen me in bed ages ago. Any person telling me I am not doing anything "for the soul" is a person that never bothered checking my online presence.


N7 image by *muju on deviantART

Friday, 4 January 2013

About A Girl

The title music from the TV series Chuck is based on Cake’s song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”. I quite like the song; it has this catchy tune, it’s got funny lyrics and most importantly – it’s featured on every episode of Chuck.
Even though Chuck rids the song of its lyrics, I do like the association created by the song’s most notable line: “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lonnnng jacket…”
It brings me back to my days of D&D. Try the song for yourselves and see what you think:



In the specific context of the series Chuck, the role of the short skirted girl with the long jacket that is there to fulfil the fantasies of this world's young nerds lies with Yvonne Stahovski. As I said already, I think she’s one of the best looking humans I have ever seen on a screen (things look different in real life when stars are almost always shorter than expected), but then again I am heavily influenced by her likeness fulfilling that exact role to specification in my favourite video game of all times.
As I also said, I think the show over-relies (or rather, relied) on Strhovski's looks. Therefore, the interesting question, as far as I am concerned, is what it takes for a person to be typecast into the role of the female with the perfect genes.
I was contemplating that question the other day upon visiting what is by now one of my favourite Melbourne restaurants: a place specializing in Israeli food. The combination of it being the food I like the most (mmm… humus…) and the general unavailability of such foods elsewhere in Australia makes that restaurant quite the Mecca for yours truly.
This time around I notices something else about the place I failed to register before: all the restaurant’s people attending to the diners were females. Not only that, they were all young females (I would put my money on them being students). Not only that, they were all quite attractive (note I am trying not to reduce the level of discussion in this blog; I shall leave the description at that level). In other words, the various waitresses looked as if they were recruited from some sort of a modelling agency.
If we ignore the restaurant’s employee selection criteria for now, I did find myself asking: how come these girls are running around people carrying trays of humus, while the not too dissimilar Strahovski is off to the States to fill in the shoes of Ms Perfect?
I suspect there are a few factors involved in this exercise of fate. Strhovski is obviously talented; it’s obvious it’s her looks that get her to further places, but I see no reason for her not to grow to receive acknowledgement for her acting prowess. It sounds like she received the full backing of her parents, too, and it is clear that in order to get to where she’s at a lot of determination and perseverance were required.
All of the above are nice, but as my restaurant experience demonstrates there are plenty of fish in the sea. So how could one makes it where hundreds, thousands and obviously much more fail? The only answer I can come up with is luck. Or, to be more precise, a collection of factors out of our hands: things like being at the right place in the right time.
This post might have started though a discussion on ideal female beauty, but the point I am trying to make is to do with something completely different. Through our culture we are all exposed to the American Dream of rising from the mire to make it big time (where big time is almost always synonymous with big money). Some of us make it, but judging by the number of successful TV series vs. the number of aspiring heroes and heroines most of us are destined to carry plates of humus.
And you know what? There is nothing wrong with carrying humus. The problem is not with humus; the problem is with a society that infuses itself with the drug of a dream that is generally unfeasible. Reality will knock on the door, eventually, just like age and potentially child bearing will on Strahovski’s looks. On the positive side, if she plays her cards right, she will be better for it; there is nothing preventing us from playing our cards right, too.

Dialogs to Remember, episode 54

Me: "Do you need the toilet or are you just happy playing with your Chupchik?"
5 year old: "I'm just happy playing with my Chupchik."

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Fate of CDs

We have a problem: we have no idea where to place our CD collection. Our DVD collection suffers from similar issues, although the lesser quantities make it the lesser problem.
Truth is we haven’t been using our CDs much for years now. When we packed them away ahead of our home renovations, about a year ago, we did not feel like we were missing much. Now that we are back at our renovated house, and have been here for a few months by now, we could not avoid noting the CD boxes keep on moving from one room to another as we sort things out - yet unpacking them is never on our agendas.
Nor is it likely to be any time soon: the reality seems to be that CD storage furniture is rather rare or expensive (probably the result of the rarity). We also noted that when we raise this matter before others we usually end up finding ourselves listening to stories on how people got rid of their CD collection; the only variations to the story come in their preferred sampling rate of the CDs prior to them getting rid of them. Whichever way you look at it, CDs have become a liability, while DVDs are on their way, too, depending on how far down the curve you are.

It is therefore important to remember how we got to this point in time: if it were up to the record labels, we would still be consuming our music through overpriced and often hard to get pieces of plastic. It is only thanks to the likes of Napster and The Pirate Bay that we were able to move away from the plastic to the virtual.
Do not forget the truth the next time these two and their compatriots are pointed out as nasty villains. They're not; they are our culture's advanced scouting team, and we are all in their debt.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Good Music

SAKURAKO - Good morning,good music.

I have complained here before on how bad contemporary music is. As in, nothing that is now playing on our radios will still be doing so in forty years time the way that, say, The Beatles or Led Zeppelin do. I even suggested that instead of constant improvement, the way we tend to automatically expect in other fields (say, computers), the field of music is going through a decline. Now I am here to say that things may be slightly different to what I have previously seen.
It's Spotify's fault and the ease with which I am now exposed to music. Take, for example, the list of the best albums of 2012, as published by The Age: listening to that I can conclude that while I did not feel like I was listening to the next Led Zep I did enjoy myself; or rather, I find myself unable to claim there is no good music being created out there. Lucky me, I can now claim there is plenty of good music out there. This observation is not entirely dependant on The Age: other playlists, such as the Misfits soundtrack (a sample of which can be found here) or the Chuck soundtrack indicate an abundance of good new music.
The problem, it now seems, is not in the lack of good music; the problem is one of distribution. We are pumped with crap; what passes nowadays for "pop" is worse than the bile of Beatles era. For one reason or another - probably coming down to record labels and radio station bean counters - this is the music that normal people get exposed to (and the music I am not looking forward to my son pumping out at high volumes once he hits his teenage years). The phenomenon is not that different to what we are seeing in the world of journalism, where the crap coming out of the Murdoch factories actually passes for news and dominates circulation.
In this background, the likes of Triple J radio or Melbourne's Triple R and PBS are the vanguard saints fighting for proper music culture. Note none of these three are commercial radio stations; something to take into account when one hears another of those "the market knows best" arguments?
We are lucky to live at an age where our dependency on record labels or any other entity to supply us with our music is at an all time low. Thank the Goddess for the Internet, the savior of our ears!


Image by MJ/TR (´・ω・), Creative Commons license